New Western Wall Rules Break Down Barriers For Jewish Women

Feb 6, 2016
Originally published on February 8, 2016 9:57 am

Israel made a decision last week that supporters are calling game-changing. Men and women will be allowed to worship together at the holiest place where Jews can legally pray. This could lead to other changes in Israel.

Batya Kallus, who helped negotiate the deal that led to the government decision, is jubilant.

"This is groundbreaking," she says. "We've reconceived what the Western Wall includes."

That's a big statement. The Western Wall is historic; all that remains standing of an ancient Jewish temple complex. In the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, it's considered the holiest place in Judaism where Jews are legally allowed to pray.

Prayer rules there are set by an Orthodox government rabbi. That means men and women worship separately at the Wall. Women have not been allowed to pray aloud, use a Torah scroll or wrap themselves in prayer shawls as men can.

Kallus, 59, belongs to Women of the Wall, a group with roots in the American feminist movement that has protested these policies for decades. Now, in a new prayer space at the Wall, those rules will not apply.

"Any Israeli who wants to be with their family, to connect with the spiritual experience of being near the Western Wall can come and be fully welcomed," says Kallus. "And with government funding."

In her eyes, that's perhaps the biggest breakthrough.

"The fact that there's now government funding, and there's separate but equal in the spaces means that what we did around prayer at the Western Wall can equally apply to marriage and divorce, which are all today controlled by religious law, not by civil law."

That's Orthodox religious law. Reform and Conservative movements, popular in the United States, are tiny and unofficial in Israel. Even among secular Jews there's a joke: The synagogue I don't go to is Orthodox.

Kallus, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, believes the government recognition of only one denomination of Judaism alienates many American Jews.

"The fact is the state of Israel needs the support of the Reform and the Conservative movement, American Jews," she says.

Americans were involved in the negotiations to create a government-supported egalitarian prayer space.

A statement issued by the Worldwide Conservative Movement called the decision historic, "conveying official government legitimacy on religious streams other than Orthodox" and recognizing the "diversity and pluralistic nature of Jewish people."

But the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, blamed the "fringe and vociferious" Women of the Wall group for creating "incessant quarrels" at a sacred site.

He says he was relieved that would end with the new space.

Separated from the current prayer area by a smaller old stone wall, the area that will become a government-funded egalitarian prayer space has been used by the Conservative movement for more than 15 years.

The plan is to rebuild it to accommodate more people, provide better access for prayer directly next to the wall and make various ceremonial items including Torah scrolls available for anyone to use.

Women who wish to pray separately, but outside Orthodox rules, will be able to set up a small, temporary barrier.

Kallus says part of the deal was to make the space high profile.

"One of our demands was that there be a grand entrance," she says. "That it be a place that is very visible, welcoming."

If Jews see choices at the Western Wall, she says, that will shape their understanding of Judaism.

But another religious Jew says these choices undermine unity.

Leah Aharoni is a business consultant who focuses on helping women entrepreneurs. Like Kallus, she is an immigrant. Born in Russia, she only began practicing Judaism as a teenager in the United States. Aharoni moved to Israel at 18, and practices Orthodox Judaism now. She says she does not find it restrictive.

"As a devout woman, I don't find shortage of ways to become close to God," she says. "I don't feel insignificant, no matter what prayer practices I adopt."

She founded an organization to try to keep prayer at the Western Wall unchanged. It's a place Jews can come together in tradition no matter how they pray elsewhere, she says.

"And I think Jewish unity is the most supreme value that we need to preserve as a people," she adds. "Because otherwise we would just stop being a people."

The new prayer space, showcased by a revamped entrance to the Western Wall area, could be built within a year.

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The Israeli government decided this week to allow men and women to worship together at the Western Wall, one of Judaism's most revered spots. The move came after years of protests and some arrests and months of secret negotiations. Advocates call it groundbreaking. NPR's Emily Harris explains.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The holiest place Jews can legally pray is a wall of huge stones in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, the Western Wall. It's part of an ancient Jewish temple complex.

BATYA KALLUS: So we're standing here in the women's section of the Western Wall.

HARRIS: Israeli Batya Kallus explains that right now, the area where you can walk directly up to the wall and touch it is divided. One stretch of the wall is for men. A smaller area is for women. They pray separately. And they pray differently. An Orthodox government Rabbi sets the rules.

KALLUS: According to Jewish - Orthodox Jewish tradition, a woman's voice should not be heard publicly in prayer. Women don't read from the Torah or sing out loud.

HARRIS: But Kallus does these things when she prays. As part of a group called Women of the Wall, she helped negotiate a deal. The government will build and maintain a prominent new space at the base of the Western Wall where Jewish men and women can pray together any way they'd like. Kallus wanted choice.

KALLUS: The state of Israel doesn't need to impose only one narrow way of being a Jew.

HARRIS: Not just in prayer. Marriage in Israel, divorce, adoption, death - all of these are governed by Orthodox rules. Kallus hopes these rules might loosen after the decision to loosen the regulations on prayer at the Wall. She also believes American-Jewish support for Israel would increase if the country were more open to non-Orthodox practices. Several years ago, women were arrested while praying at the Wall. Kallus, herself a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, says this shocked some American Jews.

KALLUS: They see women being arrested, shackled, detained because they put on a prayer shawl or sang out loud, and they are appalled by that. I have to say, it was all due credit to Prime Minster Netanyahu. He understood that.

HARRIS: Netanyahu approved the deal as a fair and creative solution.


HARRIS: A short light rail ride and up into an office overlooking Jerusalem, another other religious Jew sees things very differently.

LEAH AHARONI: My name is Leah Aharoni. I'm a business consultant, and I work with women who are in small businesses and organizations.

HARRIS: Aharoni immigrated to Israel from Russia after spending her teen years in the United States. She practices Orthodox Judaism now. And although in business she works to break boundaries for women, in faith she says she doesn't feel them.

AHARONI: As a devout woman, I don't find shortage of ways to become close to God, to worship, and I don't feel insignificant, no matter what prayer practices I adopt.

HARRIS: Aharoni co-founded an organization to keep prayer at the Western Wall from changing.

AHARONI: What makes the Western Wall so special is that we can set aside our individual differences and set aside whatever we do home and really come together as one people around one tradition that's been around for 1700 years.

HARRIS: Different places at the Wall for different practices she says undermines Jewish unity.

AHARONI: And I think Jewish unity is the most supreme value that we need to preserve as a people because otherwise we would just stop being a people.

HARRIS: Many groups face this struggle - how to preserve unity despite differences. Aharoni opposes what she sees as the government giving in to a relatively small group of protesters.

AHARONI: Because instead of creating a place for small group of women to pray, it actually creates two walls for two people.

HARRIS: Batya Kallus, who worked hard for the prayer space where any Jewish expression is welcome, calls it one people, many practices.

KALLUS: Let the best wall win (laughter).

HARRIS: The new prayer space, showcased by a revamped entrance to the Western Wall area, could be built within a year. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.